—post on New York Times blog
“When the nation catches a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia,” people would say during the Depression, with auto sales dropping so drastically that by 1933 almost half the city’s autoworkers were unemployed. That infectious epigram, from Lars Bjorn’s Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960 (Univ. of Michigan Press 2001), has been in my thoughts the past week, or ever since I read the story in the July 18 New York Times (“Billions in Debt, Detroit Tumbles Into Insolvency”).
Being the worst sort of cockeyed optimist, I responded to the news by immediately flashing on positive personal associations with Detroit, at one time my favorite city outside New York and home of the most glorious skyscraper this side of the Chrysler Building. The iTunes remark posted on the Times blog contains a large grain of truth, however. The first singer I turn to when I’m feeling Melville’s “damp drizzly November in my soul” is Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops belting out “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” which Detroit’s emergency manager should put on PA systems all over the city every day at dawn and dusk, a Motown muezzin calling the faithful and unfaithful to aim high, not low. Stubbs was born in Detroit in 1936 and died there in 2008. He’s buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, as is Rosa Parks — and as are Edsel Ford and his son, although there have been reports that some of the monied dead have been transplanted to cemeteries in the suburbs. The tombstone for Levi Stubbs is shaped like a shiny black valentine with the legend Two Hearts Beat As One, waiting for the day his wife joins him.
Another soul-saver buried at Woodlawn is the legendary jazz tenor Wardell Gray, who grew up in the Detroit area and attended one of the great American schools, Cass Tech, among a multitude of others including Donald Byrd, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Lucky Thompson, Alice Coltrane, Ellen Burstyn, Lily Tomlin, Kenny Burrell, and Diana Ross. Now that I think of it, they should put that Motown mantra, ”Where Did Our Love Go,” on the city-wide PA, let it play and play and play, it’s a song that never ends, the beat says so, it just goes and goes past death and time and taxes, you can’t stop it by turning it off. It’s the beat that never gives up and riding it is a voice you hear once in a lifetime, somewhere between Billie Holiday and Lata Mangeshkar. I’ll never forget the first time I heard that sound on the car radio driving into the depths of Brooklyn, thinking “Detroit!”
While the Supremes were seducing the world in the late 1960s, another Detroit-born singer whose father had come to the city in the 1920s from Mexico wasn’t faring so well. His two albums had gone nowhere, so he went to college, got a degree from Wayne State, worked in demolition, and one day Sixto Rodriquez woke up to find himself famous and beloved in another land, the fairy tale told in the Academy-Award-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. Detroit needs another fairy tale. It was looking for one in May, not long after the emergency manager took over, when Rodriguez played to a capacity crowd at the Masonic Temple theatre. Tickets for the event had sold out within minutes and were fetching $200 on Craig’s List.
A key figure in my boyhood vision of Detroit was Ty Cobb, the ultimate anti-hero, a racist scoundrel who carved out his career in the Motor City, tearing up the base paths, spiking infielders and pitchers covering first, and making himself a pariah while building a reputation as the greatest hitter and most exciting player ever. Though Cobb had long since retired when I was a 12-year-old St. Louis Cardinals fan, it was because of the Georgia Peach that I favored the Tigers over the other teams in the American League. Since I tended to identify cities with players, it was Good Guy St. Louis (Stan Musial) and Bad Guy Detroit (Ty Cobb). The bad guy ended his career in 1928, the same year a 47-story-high Art Deco skyscraper branded with the name of an Indian tribe in Maine was erected in the financial heart of downtown Detroit.
In a postcard of the Detroit skyline at night that I’ve had ever since a summer visit with my father when I was in seventh grade, the Penobscot Building looms in the center dominating everything, like some fantastic hall-of-the-mountain-king eminence with a red beacon blazing on top. For the past 85 years, with a headdressed Deco-style caricature of a stoic Indian chief carved above the arched entry, the mighty Penobscot has been looking down on the city. The year it went up it was the tallest building in the U.S. outside New York and the eighth tallest in the world. The Penobscot was also the star attraction of our trip to Detroit. At night we went for a walk, took in a Penny Arcade, and saw a sinister B movie that left me feeling uneasy and vulnerable as we walked around afterward. There was a hint of menace in the shadows between the street lamps on “the Main Street of Detroit,” Woodward Avenue.
What was there to fear from a street with a name as dull and ordinary as Woodward? All these years later I’ve figured it out. One day when I was maybe 10 looking through bound volumes of back issues of Life in the school library, I was startled by photos of the 1943 race riot, images of blacks being beaten and of a black kid my age being chased across Woodward Avenue by a mob of whites; another picture showed a streetcar on Woodward burning. Thirty-four people were killed in the three days of violence, 25 of them African Americans. During the riots, according to Before Motown, “whites claimed Woodward Avenue as theirs by attacking black moviegoers at the all-night Roxy and Colonial theaters, just a few blocks from the Near East Side ghetto.” Also on Woodward was the Paradise, Detroit’s “most important venue for black musical entertainment” through the 1940s. A number of jazz and rhythm and blues clubs were nearby in a neighborhood known as Paradise Valley, where buildings and shops were burned and looted during the riot.
Levi Stubbs would have been seven at the time. Less than a year later Diana Ross was born. Rodriguez was a year old. At 22, Wardell Gray had his first break in June 1943 and was touring with the Earl Hines big band, which played at the Paradise.
The 1943 riots happened when Detroit was booming. Attracted by the humming defense industries, as many as 50,000 blacks and 300,000 whites, most from the south, converged on the city. Earlier that same month, when Packard promoted three blacks to work with whites on the assembly line, 25,000 whites walked off the job.
In 2013 the payroll for the Detroit Tigers — who play before an average crowd of 37,000 fans in a bankrupt city — is the fourth highest in the major leagues at $148,414,000. The highest paid member of the team, Prince Fielder (an African American), is making $23 million a year. Meanwhile, the city is planning to spend more than $400 million on a new hockey rena for the Red Wings.
Pequot and Penobscot
Tomorrow, August 1, is Herman Melville’s 194th birthday, and while it would be a stretch to find a Detroit connection for the author of Moby Dick, readers will remember that Melville named Ahab’s doomed ship the Pequod, which, with its craggy masthead, shared certain obvious generic Indian design elements with the Penobscot Building.
But who named it the Penobscot and why? According to historicdetroit.org, the lumber baron Simon J. Murphy, who made his fortune before settling in Detroit, spent his youth working the logging camps along the Penobscot River in Maine. So it was nostalgia for the river that gave the great tower its name. Penobscot, which means “the place where the rocks open out,” was Murphy’s version of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. Another odd twist worth pointing out is that Melville chose to name Ahab’s ship after the Pequot because, as was thought in 1850, the tribe had been annihilated during the Pequot War and, writes Melville, “now are as extinct as the ancient Medes.” Truth once again outdoes fiction and the shapings of history as the Pequots reappear in the tribal casino culture of New England where online sources report that the Penobscot tribe in Maine taught the Pequots in Connecticut how to make big money from high-stakes bingo.
Then and now, ever and again, that’s what the deal comes down to.
The Right To Be
Detroit has no homegrown Melville, nor even a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. Louis Ferdinand Celine worked in the Ford plant and wrote about it in Journey to the End of the Night (1932). In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), Henry Miller called Detroit “the capital of the new planet — the one, I mean, which will kill itself off.”
Detroit does have a homegrown poet, Phillip Levine, who was born in 1928, the year Ty Cobb hung up his spikes and the Penobscot Building made its debut. Levine’s father sold used auto parts, his mother sold books. By age 14 he was working in automobile plants. After earning his BA at Wayne State (then Wayne University), he worked nights in the forge room at Chevrolet gear and axle before going to the University of Iowa, where he studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. In 2011, he became America’s poet laureate. In a Paris Review interview, he talks about going back to Detroit in 1987: “Much of what’s in the city was absent; there were no stores around, very few houses, no large buildings. Lots of empty spaces, vacant lots, almost like the Detroit I knew during the war …. [The poem, “A Walk With Tom Jefferson”] came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”